Pre-talk pessimism

As Iran’s enigmatic-by-necessity former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mosavian [now living in the U.S. after being jailed in Iran for his contacts abroad] has written, here [see previous articles,], the six-country talks with Iran about its nuclear program that are scheduled to take place this weekend in Istanbul are the first time in nine years that there may be any chance of breakthrough.

And, as Mousavian also noted, these talks also offer a chance for the US and Iran “to begin a serious dialogue to resolve more than three decades of hostilities, mistrust, and tension”.

But, many are voicing pessimism.

The U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K. — the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, who also happen to be, by the terms of the NPT Treaty, the world’s only legitimate nuclear powers — plus Germany, are all to meet this weekend with Iranian negotiators to discuss their high level of concern about Iranian nuclear intentions. The last P5+1 meeting with Iran was also in Istanbul, in January 2011.

Since then, there has been a constant stream of speculation about whether or not Israel will launch a military strike on Iran to stop any possible progress towards a nuclear weapon.

But, in the past week, a high ranking Israeli military official and a noted Iranian member of Parliament have both said that Iran already does have the capability, or the ability, to put together a nuclear warhead.

Cyrus Safdari has written a post on April 9 entitled “Why Iran nuclear talks will fail…again” on his Iran Affairs blog, here, that “There is a pattern here that just can’t be ignored, of the US deliberately raising the bar, moving goalposts, and imposing demandst that it knows will be rejected by Iran. The point, you see, is not to actually engage Iran in any sort of substantive dialog, but to give the US an opportunity to say ‘Hey we tried diplomacy and the Iranians ruined it’. So, as usuall, we have the US imposing demands on Iran even before any negotiations start, with no prospect that the US can ever provide anything in return as a quid-pro-quo. In fact, as I had explained before, the Obama administration is simply not ABLE to give anything back to Iran since US sanctions are imposed mainly by Congress, and Congress isn’t about to lift any sanctions in return for Iranian agreements to give up any part of their nuclear program. So, there will be some dickering in the media as usual but eventually the negotiations will fail and the US/Israeli will naturally blame Iran…So don’t hold your breath, these talks will also ‘fail’. The entire nuclear issue is, after all, just a pretext”.

In his previous post, here, Safdari wrote even if Iran were to agree to, say, a suspension or freeze [or even to a complete capitulation], “any move by Iran which actually reaches a compromise deal with the US as being merely a ‘tactical and temporary’ delay in Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons. This is what the hawks will call any deal that is reached with Iran, if one is ever reached: a plot by the Iranians to ‘sow dissension’ in those opposed to them, so as to ‘buy time’ to make bombs”.

Trita Parsi, in a piece in the Huffington Post that Cyrus Safdari has criticized in his latest [April 9] post, wrote that “there are some indications that the next round of talks may differ little from previous failed discussions. Driven by limited political maneuverability at home, domestic pressure not to compromise, and a perception of strength that lures the parties to believe they can force on the other a fait accompli, the talks have often been about imposing terms of capitulation on the other. It has never succeeded”.

Parsi, who serves as President of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, noted that “What remains unclear, however, is what Obama is willing to put on the table. Thus far, White House officials have only indicated that Iran would be given fuel pads to produce medical isotopes and a promise not to impose new UN sanctions on Tehran … There is a risk that Obama’s silence on the incentives side is motivated by the logic of the phased approach, that is, demands will be made throughout the talks but real incentives will only be offered in the final phase. But there is also a chance that the silence is a calculated move. While demands can be leaked to the US media, incentives will only be presented at the negotiating table once a diplomatic process has been put in place.  So far, both sides have shown a greater willingness to take a risk for escalation than a risk for peacemaking”.

The “phased approach”, as Parsi described it, is only about sanctions — international and bilateral.

There is currently no horizon for rolling back the sanctions already imposed on Iran — though Mousavian certainly advocates that possibility, for talks to succeed.  Instead, now, there is only the perspective of more and more “deeply-biting” sanctions coming into play, as soon as June if not earlier.

What is apparently at issue, in these upcoming talks, is  the matter of Iran’s project to enrich uranium up to a level of 20% — which is the quality of enrichment necessary for the Tehran Research Reactor to produce medical isotopes for uses such as cancer treatment.

The U.S. wants Iran to stop, immediately, and to close the Ferdow plant built deep underground near the city of Qom where this enrichment is taking place [which Obama brought to world public attention in his speech at the UNGA in September 2010], and then to send out of the country its entire stock of 20% enriched uranium — to be replaced by imported 20% enriched uranium.

Mousavian is one of those who have also advocated that Iran stop its 20% uranium enrichment: “it should stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium, which can be processed into weapons-grade fuel relatively easily. Simultaneously, the P5+1 should provide fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, and the United States and EU should suspend sanctions on Iran’s oil and central bank”. Mousavian made this recommendation in his 31 March opinion piece published in the Boston Globe, here.

Indeed, Iran has just signalled that it will consider stopping this 20% enrichment — but only when it has domestically produced the quantity “needed” [for what, is not clear, but the implication is for the medical purposes Iran has described].

The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization has ruled out, however, shipping abroad any stockpile of Iran’s domestically-produced 20% enriched uranium.

Iran, which has been under bilateral and then broader Western sanctions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has said it simply cannot trust in any external source to provide on a continuous and long-term basis the enriched uranium it needs — because of the sanctions and more sanctions to which it has been subjected.

What is so important about stopping Iran’s 20% uranium enrichment effort?

As Parsi wrote, “This package is a non-starter to most observers – including to other P5+1 diplomats. The problem is not necessarily the demands, but the imbalance between what is demanded and what is offered. If Iran would agree to this, the US’s current conviction that Iran cannot dash for a bomb without getting caught would persist. Iran would need about a year to build a bomb, but would get caught within 30-60 days if it tried to build one, thanks to the current level of inspections. Iran’s activities at Fordo [Ferdow] and its growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, however, reduces Iran’s dash-out time and it could make it more difficult for the inspectors to catch any Iranian foul play”…

Iran has not yet moved to the 90%+ level of enrichment necessary to build a nuclear weapon — but once Iran has mastered 20% uranium enrichment, it is only a matter of months to advance further.

Iran has a large stockpile of Low-Enriched Uranium, or LEU, needed to operate nuclear reactors used to generate power for civilian use [5,5 tons, as Israeli Maj-Gen (res) Amos Gilad said at a briefing in Jerusalem last week].  What is new about the upcoming talks is that this stockpile of LEU is not being treated as a very big deal — for the moment.

There is also relatively little talk, in advance of this weekend’s talks, about “regime change”, as both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. President Barack Obama face voters in the coming months.

But, the UN Security Council has already called for a total freeze in Iran’s enrichment program, and has voted for three-plus rounds of sanctions until Iran halts all its enrichment.

And, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson has just said that “We, naturally, insist on Iran’s full compliance with the UN Security Council, aimed at ruling out any possibility of Tehran’s program being used for military activity”.  This statment is reported here.

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